Lying in our sleeping bags this morning we noticed a thin layer of ice glittering inside the roof of our tent. It really was very cold overnight and while our sleeping bags, and Philippa’s many, many layers of clothing kept our bodies warm, our faces were pretty chilly.
When the Second World War broke out there were two German geologists working in Namibia who decided that they’d really rather not get involved. Henno Martin and Hermann Korn knew they would be enlisted to fight in a war they didn’t believe in so they decided to hide out in Namibia instead. They set a false trail for any investigators and then, with their dog Otto they traveled into the desert about 40K from Mirabib (but a heck of a lot further from anywhere with people). There they found a large cave in which they built a shelter and worked out how to be self- sufficient and unseen, something they managed to be for about two years. Finding their cave was my goal for the day.
The main gravel road was only half an hour or so away and we saw dust trails in the distance as the handful of cars on it swished by. Henno’s cave was marked on the satnav and soon we were on another 4×4 trail to get a bit closer to it. There is even a parking area at the end of it overlooking a huge system of river gorges and ravines.
We picked our way along a rocky path and after fifteen minutes or so reached a rocky overhang with a couple of stone walls inside it.
The desert was beginning to change, The pale sand of the Namib replaced by the deep red of the Kalahari basin, and dotted with many more plants. The mountains looming up either side of us were darker too – and wider and more craggy. It was a dramatic drive in the late afternoon sunshine. On a whim we stopped at tiny Solitaire to see if we could get a cold drink from the garage, and found that it had the most magnificent bakery with fancy cakes and biscuits, which obviously we bought by the bag-full.
There was a grocery selling ice-cream too so Tom had some of that. Outside were the wrecks of a range of cars going back to at least the 1950s.
The more cinematically astute among you will recognise that as a line from “2001 A Space Odyssey”, though the line that gets the glory is “I’m sorry Dave, I’m afraid I can’t do that”. Well we’re not sorry and we CAN do it and in fact we did – and to find out what, read on…
Before delving into the world of 2001 we had to leave Swakopmund, which was a great stopover in a really terrific B&B. Peter, who runs it, was so friendly and helpful and we all shook hands when we left. The morning was cold and misty to the point that I had to use the windscreen wipers from time to time, there was so much water in the air. And as we now know, its what makes the desert here special. We followed the coast south to Walvis Bay, named after the whales which used to bring whalers in from around the world.
It is now the main port for Namibia and as we got closer we could see tankers, container boats and tugs moored up in the mist. Its a sprawling sort of place with row upon row of tiny houses in pastel colours.
We couldn’t get to the top either – the rock walls were just too steep, but we found endless little places to poke about in before climbing back down to our site.
Weeks before we set off for Namibia, I booked us places on the Living Desert Adventures tour which had rave reviews on Tripadvisor. Peter, who runs the Cornerstone said it was the “best thing to do in Swakopmund” which was good to hear, and this morning at eight sharp we were picked up by a dynamic Namibian guy called Chris.
It was a ghostly little thing and while they can get much bigger Chris said they always have babies with them and they would die if someone dug them up. So he only goes for the small ones, which he then helps dig back down into the sand.
He found a beautiful little web-footed gecko in the same way – following its tracks and carefully excavating its hole.
To say that downtown Swakopmund on a winter Sunday is quiet, is to suggest that the Arctic is a tad on the cool side. It is not just quiet, but post-apocalypse silent. You could have a snooze in the middle of a major intersection without interruption.
It feels a bit like being on the set of The Truman Show – complete with pastel coloured Victorian doll-house architecture. It does have a West Coast USA vibe in fact with funky little cafes and art shops. Just no people or cars.
We all felt a woozy from several busy days, though the sun and the Windhoek lager probably contributed. We should insist Tom has a soft drink next time.
He chose the day’s next activity: Sand Boarding! It’s like Snowboarding but, erm, on sand. Actually without the snowboards too. They were available but we went for the lying down option on some high-tech, purpose-built “bits of fibreboard”. We waxed them and had the instructions about lying down head first, gripping the front and bending it up, keeping our feet in the air unless we needed to steer and trying to avoid getting a mouthful of sand. Philippa was the first to go down what looked like an awfully steep bit of dune, but away she went, and almost down the next slope as well. She was a natural! Tom was more cautious; “hmmm… don’t push me, I’ll just eeaaase myself over – no I’m fine. Er, count me down THEN I’ll go” etc etc, but soon he was flying down the slope too.
I have wanted to go the Skeleton Coast for as long as I can remember. As a boy it seemed to define remote and exotic; a cruel coastline backed by an inhospitable desert for mile upon mile – almost half the length of Namibia right up to the Angolan border. It is every bit as wonderful as I imagined it to be. But first we had to get there.
We called in at the main gate to see the rhino displays and also reflect that they really won’t be around for all that much longer because some ignorant, arrogant, senseless idiots are under the ridiculous delusion that their horns will have an impact on their libido. Someone needs to tell these morons that they could just bite their nails. They are made of the same stuff and it would have exactly the same effect – ie none. Can you imagine a more sad and pointless way to eradicate an entire species from the planet.
There was a Land Rover approaching in the distance. We stopped and they stopped and we compared notes. They were a cheery young German couple who’d been climbing in Spitzkoppe and were thinking about doing our route in reverse. I told them if they could get past the steep, wet bit of track beyond the Rhino Camp they would be OK for the rest of the route, but going uphill there would be a lot harder than coming down it like we did. We compared maps and they told us that the road ahead was very badly corrugated. It was nice chatting to kindred spirits in this empty landscape but eventually we bid our farewells, started the engines and went our separate ways.
The road was very badly corrugated and the gravel so deep that it was hard to get enough speed to glide over the ruts. At every crest we squinted to see the sea but the haze made it impossible to make out where the land ended and the water began. But then, just a few kilometers from the coast we could see blue water and big frothing surf. It was thrilling to drive out of the flat desert to such a dramatic bit of coast stretching away in both directions until it was lost in a milky haze at the horizon.
We needed to go south but wanted to see a shipwreck marked on the map and drove north for half an hour on an eerily smooth salt road that bobbed over the dunes. We turned left at the point marked on the satnav, but the sand had obscured any trace of a track so we made our own – the four wheel drive struggling to pull us through the deep sand. After a couple of K we stopped on a hard bit of beach (so I could turn around) and got out.
|I am quite excited about being on the Skeleton Coast|
The wind was blowing, the sea was pounding, the sand was almost too bright to look at in the brilliant sunshine.
It was littered with the bones of seals and birds, and near the waters edge, the rusting ironwork of the Winston, a fishing boat that ran aground in 1970.
A little further down the road is Henties Bay, a pastel coloured village by the sea with a hole-in-the-wall restaurant called “Fishy Corner” which promised great things… And it delivered! Inside, it was all fishing nets and white-plank tables with a mounted marlin head on the wall.
The fish was fresh and huge, the beer cold, the waitress jolly. We couldn’t linger though, it was now five and we had an hour left to drive on unlit salt-pan roads in the last of the daylight. Just a few K down the road though we saw a large ship rolling in the surf and pulled off again for a look. It was another fishing boat that ran aground in 2008. We watched it tossed around by the surf as the sun went down.
Winter rolled in overnight. Our sleeping bags kept the icicles at bay but our faces were cold and Philippa and I woke to the sound of condensation dripping from inside the tent. Time to get up. I’m so glad we brought a thermos for hot water from the night before. We made hot chocolate and sat in shafts of sunshine. I climbed the boulder in front of the tents and watched a river of golden sunlight slip through a gap in the cliffs and pour across the valley. The rim of the mountains around us glowed orange and slowly it spread towards us.
The track wasn’t great, but compared to Kaokoland it was a newly rolled French autoroute and we picked our way through mountains of burnt orange, past the massive Doros Crater and with the Brandenberg Mountain looming off in the misty distance like a rocky aircraft carrier.
Back on the track, with the sun beginning to descend, we did too; through landscape which became ever more rocky and unforgiving. Great shafts of grey/black rock stuck out of the ground at an angle which suggested it had either been hurled there or was struggling to escape. Cliffs closed in on us and sharp rocks stuck out of the track, impossible to avoid. The trail went ever steeper down through the gorge towards the Ugab river. At one point we passed a spring which had left pools of water across the trail and exposed short, near vertical drops between one part of the track and the next. It was challenging stuff as the light began to fade. But soon we were crossing the sandy riverbed to the SRT Rhino camp, a conservation station set up by a charity. A man on a bike appeared and checked us into the campsite. We were the only ones there, and parked in a small enclosure by the sign saying to beware of the elephants and lions. And not to feed them. We didn’t.